As everyone knows by now, Adam Sandler’s “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan”
dives in where few comedies have gone before: The Middle East conflict
between Arabs and Jews. Hollywood has a long tradition of preferring
onscreen Jews to be Semitic-lite (or even better, portrayed by non-Jews
such as Gregory Peck in “Gentleman’s Agreement”).
Sandler, however, pulls no such punches in “Zohan” — Israel is Israel
and Zohan’s nemesis is a Palestinian terrorist — there is no attempt
to create fake countries or nationalities. For that alone, Sandler and
Sony, the studio that financed the film, should be commended.
As to whether “Zohan” will advance the cause of peace in the Middle
East and increase regard for Israel and Israelis in the world at large,
even as Israel itself celebrates its 60th anniversary, that’s hard to
say. But face it: Given the results of peace negotiations thus far over
the last several decades under American, Israeli and Arab regimes of
the right, left and center, “Zohan” stands as good a chance as any.
One thing’s for sure. If the film’s opening sequence on the beaches of
Tel Aviv, featuring one fetching, toned, tanned hedonistic beach beauty
after another (many of them tattooed), doesn’t boost tourism to Israel,
I don’t know what will. At the very least, it will raise the bar on
Israeli beauty (and when I say “bar,” I mean Bar Rafaeli).
Mostly, watching “Zohan,” you will laugh. At times, you will be ashamed
for doing so, given the crudeness or the simplicity of the joke, but
you will laugh all the same (who knew hummus had so many uses and could
be so funny?).
Sandler’s Zohan, as you may know from the many ads and trailers, is
Israel’s greatest counterterrorism agent. Writing in The New York
Times, A.O. Scott compared him to “a less anguished version of Eric
Bana’s character in ‘Munich'” — that may be so. (Although I was no fan
of “Munich” — I just didn’t find the movie that funny — I only
laughed like twice.)
Zohan is unstoppable, undefeatable, a master of martial arts, able to
catch a bullet with his fingers, punch through a wall, swim faster than
a Jet Ski — you get the idea.
But he is tired of war, tired of the fighting, tired of being Israel’s
go-to guy for missions against terrorists. What he wants is to pursue
his dream: to style hair to make men and women look “silky smooth.”
While on a mission to capture the notorious terrorist, “The Phantom”
(John Turturro), he fakes his death.
Zohan then travels to New York, where he is no longer famous and is
ridiculed for his ’80s-style clothes, hairstyle and love of disco. A
fellow Israeli recognizes him (Iddo Mosseri, an Israeli actor), and at
his lowest moment, Zohan is tempted to join him working in an
electronics store. But his friend warns him away, saying the lure of
electronic sales is too strong; it kills dreams.
Zohan gets a job instead at a salon run by Dalia, a Palestinian, played
by Emmanuelle Chriqui (of “Entourage” fame), on a Brooklyn street where
one side is Arab, the other Israeli and everyone, although distrusting
the other, gets along.
Zohan boosts Dalia’s struggling business by showering his attentions on
her elderly clientele, using a technique pioneered by Zero Mostel in
“The Producers.” Disgusting and very funny.
All is good until Zohan is recognized by an Arab cab driver played by
Rob Schneider, who rounds up his fellow Arab cab drivers. After first
calling the Hezbollah hotline, which is out of service until
negotiations break down again, they call the Phantom, now a successful
fast-food operator in the Middle East, and tell him where Zohan works.
Along the way, “Zohan” is riddled with cameo performances and
appearances by Shelley Berman, Lainie Kazan, Michael Buffer, Kevin
James, Kevin Nealon, John McEnroe, Mariah Carey and even Los Angeles
local luminaries, such as entertainment manager Guy Oseary, Academy of
Motion Picture Arts and Sciences President Sid Ganis and Roni from
In the end, it turns out the bad guys are not the Israelis or Arabs but
a Donald Trump-like developer who is pitting the Brooklyn Israeli and
Arab residents against each other so that he can build a mall.
When the Phantom finally confronts Zohan in America, he confesses that
he, too, has a dream: He wants to sell shoes, and Zohan encourages him,
telling him that in the United States, Arabs and Israelis put aside
their differences to live their dreams and get on with their lives.
A couple of weeks ago, at the press conference for “Zohan,” Mosseri and
Schneider talked about how the Israeli and Arab actors at first were
suspicious of each other but eventually came to have lunch together at
what they dubbed “The Peace Table,” where they had long, personal and
occasionally heated discussions on the Middle East, even as they
developed friendships that culminated in a trip to Las Vegas. Only in
America! (Perhaps the sequel should have Zohan pressed back into
service to save Las Vegas during his bachelor party.)
The Zohan peace plan of living as Israelis and Arabs do in America has
been dubbed by that well-known critic of Middle East policy, Daily
Variety, as “simplistic.” Maybe, but it is also very Sandler.
First and foremost, Sandler is an instinctual comedian. He looks to the
nuggets from his own experience or belief system to fuel his comedies.
Born in 1966, Sandler is of a generation that has known Israel only as
a superpower. As Sandler recounted at the “Zohan” press conference, as
a kid, his impression was that Israel was this country that everyone
wanted to destroy, but no one could — they kicked ass.
So there was a generational difference in perspectives: His parents
worried about Israel’s survival; Sandler thought Israel’s ability to
triumph was cool. That schism is presented in the movie, and I’m not
sure I’ve ever seen it on the screen before.
To write a think piece about Sandler may sound, at first, like a
contradiction in terms — not unlike “jumbo shrimp” or “military
intelligence” — but understanding who Sandler is and where he comes
from goes a long way toward explaining his success.
Sandler was born in Brooklyn to Judy, a nursery school teacher, and
Stanley, an electrical engineer, according to IMDb.com. At age 5, the
family moved to Manchester, N.H.
Being Jewish in Manchester must have been a special experience, since
it inspired the comic mind not only of Sandler but also fellow
Manchester resident Sarah Silverman. It also seems to be have inspired
Sandler’s 2002 landmark venture into animation, “Eight Crazy Nights”
(the first-ever feature animated Chanukah movie).
Sandler began performing stand-up comedy while at New York University.
He also nabbed a recurring role on “The Cosby Show” in 1987 as Theo’s
friend, Smitty. Once on the comedy circuit, he moved to Los Angeles,
where he roomed with Judd Apatow.
Dennis Miller recommended Sandler to Lorne Michaels, who hired him for
“Saturday Night Live” in 1990. It was on “SNL” that Sandler first met
both Schneider and Robert Smigel. And as Smigel revealed to my
colleague, Jay Firestone, in these pages, Sandler’s first “SNL” sketch
was a spoof of Israeli hard sell, called “The Sabra Shopping Network.”
It was written by Smigel, whom Sandler would tap to write “Zohan” with
him and Apatow.
Sandler left “SNL” in 1995 to pursue a film career. “Billy Madison” and
“Happy Gilmore,” for which he shared writing credit, followed soon
thereafter, establishing Sandler’s popularity. The 1998 film, “The
Waterboy,” was Sandler’s first to pass the $100 million mark,
establishing him as a bankable comedy superstar.
Over the last decade, Sandler has produced or starred in more than a
dozen films and shared writing credit on a handful. Yet if you ask most
people, they hark back to the movies early in his career, such as
“Happy Gilmore” or “The Wedding Singer,” as having cemented his image
as a sweet, emotional, vulnerable cretin savant.
Yet many people I know between the ages of 15 to 30 don’t seem
particularly interested in Sandler or in this movie. They tell me they
used to like his movies — now they’re not sure. His humor, they say,
seems too old-fashioned (I think the word they are looking for is
The humor they like is more deadpan, like “The Office” or “Flight of
the Conchords.” They like Apatow’s movies, and although Apatow has a
writing credit on this one, they perceive this movie as different.
I’m not worried for Sandler. As Sony is well aware, since “The
Waterboy,” almost all the movies that Sandler produces and stars in
perform reliably in the $120 million to $135 million range, according
to Box Office Mojo, and often better, and that includes movies you
might not think of as successful, such as “The Longest Yard” ($158
million), “I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry” ($120 million),
“Click” ($137 million) and “Anger Management” ($135 million).
The only exception is “Little Nicky” ($39 million). In its first
weekend, “Zohan” came in second in the box-office race, earning an
estimated $40 million, behind only an animated panda.
That being said, it is important to point out some differences between the Apatow and Sandler oeuvres.
Apatow’s movies are grounded in reality, fueled by embarrassing or
awkward moments that have happened or could happen in real life. Many
of the films associated with Apatow, such as his “Knocked Up” or Seth
Rogen’s “Superbad” or Jason Segal’s “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”
(co-produced by Apatow), feature nice Jewish boys who are
ambition-challenged, pot-smoking and untoned (what’s the opposite of
“buff”?) but who get the girl — usually a far more beautiful girl than
anyone would ever imagine they could win.
“Zohan” subverts this paradigm. Sandler’s Zohan is a man’s man —
hairy, comfortable grilling fish in the nude (Apatow has made a crusade
of male nudity, and this may be part of his contribution to “Zohan”).
That being said, Zohan is no nebbish. He is used to being the best at
everything and to being irresistible and so comfortable with himself
that sex is just another physical prowess about which he is nonchalant
(until he falls in love).
Dalia, the girl he falls in love with, is not unreachable, she’s just
not Jewish, and a Palestinian to boot. But given that she, too, is
tired of the fighting — and even drinks Israeli soda — they fall in
love, and in keeping with Hollywood traditions from “The Jazz Singer”
on, his parents approve.
Speaking of parents, Sandler confessed that his own parents seem
pleased with him. As Sandler made clear at the “Zohan” press
conference, he was raised in a Jewish home. His wife is Jewish, his
child is Jewish (at his wedding, Sandler’s dog walked down the aisle
wearing a kippah, so perhaps his dog is Jewish, as well).
Sandler’s stance toward his Judaism seems much like Popeye’s credo, “I
am what I am.” It is an attitude that has served him well.
Sandler’s instinct that comedy was to be found in mocking Israeli
stereotypes and the conflict between Arabs and Jews may not earn him an
Oscar or the Nobel Peace Prize. But “Zohan” brings these topics to the
mainstream in a way that will have many, many people laughing.
In this way, Sandler is hewing to a long Jewish tradition that has
always chosen laughter over tears in the face of seemingly insolvable
adversity. Funny, that.
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else,
he’s an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times
Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every
Copyright 2008 Tommywood